Monday, June 23, 2008

New Moderator

I should have mentioned that we elected a new moderator for the next two years: His name is Bruce Reyes-Chow. He is 39, very energetic and personable, even while running a meeting with 700+ people in attendance. I believe he will represent the PCUSA well.

General Assembly

Greetings from California, everyone!
Guess what! One morning, a sea-lion woke me up in Monterey!
The trip up from LA was fabulous.
General Assembly is an incredible experience.
Opening worship was wonderful yesterday. Out going moderator Joan Gray preached on "The Impossible Commandment" - Jesus command that his followers should love one another as Christ loves us. It was really good. She asked "How did Jesus love us?" She said, for one thing, that he put on flesh and came where we are, breathed the same air. And Jesus loved the unlovable. She was funny, talking about the unlovable - or at least the less likable - among us. It set a good tone for all of us here. The partisanship is pretty incredible.
Please keep praying for us.

My first full day of committee work is ahead. Last night we met for the first time, to learn the rules and get acquainted. There are almost 70 people on the committee. Most of us - including me! - are just there to listen. I hope we can keep that in mind.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Burning, but not burned up

Well, as a proud alum of the University of Kansas, I was leafing through my alumni magazine when I saw the University Seal. And guess what! It's a picture of Moses, kneeling in front of the burning bush. See:
The motto - for those of you whose Latin is rusty ;) - is "I will see this great vision of the bush that is not burning up."

The burning bush is also the symbol of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Their motto is "Burning, but not consumed" That's good, too.

The Presbyterian Church of Ireland (Northern Ireland Protties, don't you know!) also uses the burning bush on its flag. That motto is "Burning, but flourishing"

I like all of those. The Presby Church in America has never used the burning bush, which is a little odd, since Scotch-Irish Presbies abound here. But we do have that little bit of fire on each side of the cross in our symbol. I think it is supposed to be the tongues of flame from Pentecost. But I'm going to pretend it is the burning-but-not-burning-up-bush.

On fire, and never burned out. That would be a great church motto.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


My blogging friend PeaceBang has a little discussion on the meaning of the phrase "lead us not into temptation" on her blog.
I looked back at the sermon I preached this Lent. And I tried to post this, but her website ate it. Twice. So I'm just putting it here.

I preached a Lord's Prayer series this spring, looking for clues as to what Jesus might have meant by these phrases.
So this "lead us not into temptation" phrase sent me to the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness (a great story about the human condition) AND to Gethsemane, the night he was arrested. He asked the disciples to keep watch with him, and when he found that they'd fallen asleep, he woke them and said, "Pray that you not be led into temptation." The same phrase. And clearly, here, it means pray that you not close your eyes to the suffering in front of you. Stay awake and be a part of Christ's suffering.
Couldn't it be that that's what Jesus wants us to pray, too: "Even though it is painful, don't let me close my eyes to the suffering around me. Keep me awake, so I can participate in what God is doing in the world?"
That's what I think.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sermon - June 8

We’re talking about Micah 8 in terms of Core Values – Remember that statement that defines core values? It came from the National Park Service’s website:
“The core values of an organization are those values we hold which form the foundation on which we perform work and conduct ourselves. In an ever-changing world, core values are constant. Core values underlie our work, how we interact with each other, and which strategies we employ to fulfill our mission. They are the practices we use (or should be using) every day in everything we do.”
Micah 6:8 can be understood as a statement of the core values of God’s people. These three things undergird our life of faith: To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.
How does the core value of loving kindness shape our life of faith? The word from Micah is translated, throughout the Old Testament variously as compassion, mercy, loyalty, the capacity to relent, but most commonly as steadfast love. For the next few minutes, let’s think together about what that means for us and how that core value
Govern personal relationships
Guide us in making decisions
Help explain why we do business the way we do
Underpin the whole organization
One place to begin is to notice how important loving kindness was to Jesus. Because there’s no question that loving kindness was one of Jesus’ core values. When Jesus was asked by a lawyer to name the most important of all the commandments, the story is in Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus immediately answered that the most important law was that of love – You shall LOVE the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” AND, Jesus added, right behind that one is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
It was the core value of Love that guided Jesus’ in his every day dealings with God in Heaven, and with other human beings.
How did Jesus show his love for God?
He prayed – he often went off by himself and spent time alone with God.
He worshipped in the synagogues and at the Temple – Jesus never separated himself from His community of faith. His parents took him to the Temple as a baby, he went as a young teenager, he continued to go and was there the week before his death. He participated in worship as a member of God's people throughout his life.
He studied God’s Word as it was found in the Scriptures.
We know that because he quoted scripture all the time. The Great Commandment and the Love your neighbor as yourself commandment are both found in the scriptures that Jesus knew. He didn't make those things up. He was quoting the book of Deuteronomy. As he studied that book, he would have waded through about 500 other “Laws” that the Pharisees thought were every bit as important: Laws about food, laws about how to arrange the temple, laws about washing, laws about the Sabbath, laws about all kinds of good stuff.
The Pharisees, who also loved the scriptures, tried to show God their love by keeping every one of those laws. We can’t imagine their individual motives. Were they afraid of God? Were they afraid of God’s punishment? Were they afraid of themselves? Did they fear that without all those laws, their lives would be unmanageable? It’s hard to know. But what we do know is that Jesus understood the core value of steadfast love more fully than they.
And he challenged them about it.
And they challenged him.
The Gospel text that the lectionary assigns for today is about the call of Matthew the tax collector to be one of Jesus’ disciples. The night that Matthew said “yes” to Jesus, there was a party at his house. And the taxcollectors and sinners came. And Jesus came. And because they wanted to be where Jesus was, the other disciples came. In order to be with Jesus, they had to sit with the sinners. But the Pharisees didn’t come. Oh No! They just poked their heads in, saw what was going on and motioned for a couple of the disciples to come outside. “What is your teacher doing in there, eating with tax collectors and sinners?” But when they asked Jesus about it, he just said, “I go where people need me.” And then he quoted what sounds like Micah, chapter 6, but is probably from Hosea – What do you think it means when God says, “I desire compassion, not sacrifice.” Have a little compassion. Have a little mercy. For God’s mercy, as shown through Jesus Christ, is wider than our own. And we know that, because God’s mercy has been wide enough to include each one of us.
One of Jesus’ most famous parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, was a brilliant exposition of what compassion means, what love for neighbor means, what having mercy means. It is found in Luke, chapter 10, and it still challenges us to live by the core value of compassion/steadfast love.
There was a famous sociology experiment, conducted; I am embarrassed to say, at the seminary where I earned my degree – Princeton Theological Seminary, though not, I hasten to add, while I was there. Researchers took seminarians, gave them a questionnaire and a copy of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then sent them to an adjoining building. There they were to deliver an impromptu speech on the text. Some of them were told that they’d taken too much time on the questionnaire, and would soon be late to the next step. Others were congratulated on being prompt and told they had just enough time to get to the next building to stay on schedule. Others were told they had plenty of time. In order to get to correct room in the second building, the seminarians had to pass by a person slumped in the hallway, who coughed, moaned and seemed to be in some distress. Sadly, only 40% of the pastors in training stopped to offer assistance. Not surprisingly, the majority of those who helped were those who thought they had plenty of time.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, when Jesus told the story, it wasn’t the priest or the religious leader who stopped to help the man by the side of the road. It was the Samaritan, the outsider, the one upon whom all the good religious folk looked down, who dressed the man’s wounds, took him to an inn and nursed him back to health at his own expense. This is the one who lived out the core value of compassionate love.
Lovingkindness. Steadfast love. Compassion. Mercy.
How do we see this core value being lived out among us?
I think of Betty Lauchner, and Marlene, and Lou going shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond for the bedroom for linens for the bedroom of the Women in Transition house. Looking at every kind of sheet, comparing prices and value, as carefully as if they were buying these things for one of their daughters or the daughter of a friend.
I think of Terry Pratt, who takes care of generations of her family so carefully, but still volunteers for Vacation Bible School, because she knows how important VBS is to her kids and she wants that for other people’s children, too.
I think of those of you who visit our elderly and shut ins, letting them know that they are still important to us, that they are still part of this congregation and that we love them.
These acts of steadfast loving kindness lie at the core of our life together as a church, just as compassion and mercy lay at the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry.
These words describe what lies at the heart of the eternal God in whom we trust. And these words are a challenge God sets before us.
Steadfast love. Compassion. Mercy.
This week, will we live by the core value of lovingkindness?
Will our actions be guided by steadfast, loyal love?
Will compassion undergird the whole organization of Philo Presbyterian Church?
Will mercy explain why we do what we do?
After all God’s lovingkindness and all God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, that we should strive to exercise steadfastness and compassion – is that too much to ask?
God has shown you, o mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you, but that you
Do justice, and loving kindness, walk humbly with your God.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sermon - June 1

Micah 6:1-8
"Core Values"
June 1, 2008

Core values. Every so often it’s good for an individual or an organization to ask themselves about core values. This “core values” term is very “au courant” in managerial and business circles. In fact, I found the most succinct definition of core values on the National Park Services website. Apparently, they have just gone through the process of discerning their core values. And they have a good explanation of the term:
What are Core Values?

The core values of an organization are those values we hold which form the foundation on which we perform work and conduct ourselves. In an ever-changing world, core values are constant. Core values underlie our work, how we interact with each other, and which strategies we employ to fulfill our mission. They are the practices we use (or should be using) every day in everything we do.
Operating practices Business strategies Cultural norms What we are good atChanged in response to market/ administration changes
Govern personal relationships Guide business processes Clarify who we are Articulate what we stand for Help explain why we do business the way we do Guide us on how to teach Inform us on how to reward Guide us in making decisions Underpin the whole organization Require no external justification Essential tenets

Micah 6:8 can be understood as a statement of the core values of God’s people. We did not choose them from a multiple choice menu. These are values that grow, undeniably and organically out of the relationship with God that God has created and covenanted with us. These three things undergird our life of faith: To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. These values lie at the center of our faith, pinned there by the cross of Jesus Christ, who embodied these values in a human life so that we could see how it was done.
Put another way: What does God require/request/respect from us? Given who God is and what God has done, who shall we be?
The first core value is Justice. Doing – Actively living out the value of Justice –
Most of us might go to an awful lot of Sunday School before we would recognize the centrality of Justice to God’s desire for his people. Because the Bible we read is in English, but if we looked at the Hebrew, we would begin to see how often the word tzedek, or justice is used. It’s the word translated as “judgement” as well as “justice”. And it is closely related to the word sometimes translated as charity - "tzedakah". That’s because, according to God’s Word, giving to the poor is a matter of fulfilling an obligation, and of righting a social wrong. Our image of Justice is Lady Justice, holding the scales – well, there is some of that balancing sense in the Bible’s core value of Justice. So too, the act of giving tzedakah involves restoring the relationship of giver and receiver as equals in society.
In Bible Study, Karen pointed out that the way God wants us to give is in the spirit of “You’re not poor, you’re just broke.” To consider someone poor is to consider them less than you. But to see them as broke recognizes that they like us (in worth, in stature before God) , only without money – Broke. And, as Jan added – we all are broke – broken, sometimes. Justice is a hand over of what God means to be evenly distributed.
There’s something else about Lady Justice that relates to Biblical justice: Lady Justice is blind – impartial. Doesn’t favor the majority, the popular, the familiar, the familial. Justice is equally owed the alien and the stranger and the sojourner. In fact, God’s covenant with His people was that they were to be especially careful to be impartial and fair to aliens.
Psalm 72:12–14 describes how God’s servant is
to see the world (my translation):
For this one delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper;
is concerned about the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence this one redeems
their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight.
This care of the weakest is often tied to the period of slavery
in Egypt. Deuteronomy 24:17–18 states: “You shall
not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice. . . .
Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord
your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command
you to do this.”

(from "What Does the Lord Require" session 1 - the thoughtful christian)

One of the reasons that Christians have had such an easy time being Americans is that America also has affirmed the importance of this core value. Americans would say that justice, impartial justice, including the importance of a fair trial, is one of our most cherished core values. It is part of the Bill of Rights – a foundational document for America.
Yet in the current climate of fear and division, this foundational principal is being downgraded, relativized, ruled in- applicable. I’m not going to talk about the “War of Terror”. I just want to tell you about what has happened to one young man: Omar Khadr, who is now 21, is being “tried” if one can call it that, after being held for 5 years without legal representation, without family visits, without contact with anyone who can help him. He was 15 when he was captured. Justin Ault is older. Chris Berger is older. Sean Hartin is older than this young man was when he was scooped off the battlefield. For five years, in which Justin and Chris and Collin can reasonably expect to learn to drive, kiss a girl, fight with their parents over how late they stay out, graduate from high school, make some good decisions, and hopefully not too many bad ones, take their first legal drink, if they choose, move away from home, but hopefully not so far away that Mom can’t send a car package. But the same five years in which these guys will do those things, Omar has been imprisoned without charges, subject to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, techniques that we would NEVER allow to be used on one of our children, brought up on charges based on flimsy evidence, without access to adequate legal counsel, and now faces a trials conducted in secrecy, far from the eyes of the American people. The actual trial is being held in a sort of bunker, in conditions that remind me of nothing so much as the way I was taught dictators structured trials – the only observers will be behind soundproof glass, so that they can’t even really hear what is going on in the courtroom. This is happening right now. And our government is doing it. And the God who asks of us that, as a core value we do justice, cannot be pleased.
What can we do? Maybe we can't do much.
Pray. That’s right.
Write letters to our representatives, of course.
Make good decisions at the polls. Yes.
But, as Christians, what we cannot do is just shrug our shoulders and say, So What? Doing justice means that we act, whatever it is we do, out of core value that God expects us to maintain. This value is not just for Republicans or Democrats, or for “liberal” or “conservative” Christians. It is for all of us.
God requires that aliens also be granted justice.
That’s why I was so moved to receive the token of appreciation from the boy in Beit Jala who we sent some money to for a van. Because it shows that we are acting out of this core concern for justice for aliens. You know, Palestians are aliens in the most fundamental sense of the word. They are people without a country. Palestinians living in the occupied territories are not allowed to be citizens of Israel, the country that occupies their land. Nor are they allowed to have a nation of their own. Thirty foot high concrete walls cut them off from their gardens and vineyards and orchards. You may have the idea that the wall is around the edge of the Palestinian territory. But that’s not right. It snakes all over, winding around and through villages, separating the people from the land they farm and from each other. Look at a map.
You know the emblem from Beit Jala was in a lovely little olive wood box. Well, there’s lots of olive wood to work into boxes and candlesticks and stuff over there. Because over one million Palestinian olive trees have been torn up by Catapillar bulldozers in the last few years, hundred of square miles of productive agricultural infrastructure destroyed as collective punishment and intimidation, both in direct violation of the Geneva Accord, which Israel and her most important ally, the United States of America, signed. How would Dirk react if a bulldozer showed up one day on the church’s land and started “plowing”?
Illegal settlements built by the Israeli government on Palestinian land are protected, while 94% of all building permit requests by Palestinian families are denied. And if the families has a baby, the family grows, as ours do, and they decide to go ahead and build, on their own land an additional room on a home they own, they are told that the whole house is subject to demolition. Whenever the government chooses to have the bulldozers come. So many children grow up in a home for years, go to school one day and come home to find their mother crying over a pile of rubble. And people wonder why Palestinians sometimes seem to be so angry and alienated? I think I’m beginning to get it.
So I’m very happy that this church has become involved a little bit with some of the boys who cannot live in their own homes because of unjust conditions there. We sent a little money for a van. Of course, the Israeli bureaucracy has, temporarily we hope, blocked the purchase of that van by refusing to recognize the church run school as a non-profit organization. They want to squeeze, from a Christian charity in this desperately poor little town, a 100% tax on the purchase of the vehicle. This is the government that, in January of this year, signed an agreement in which they receive – for nothing - 30 BILLION dollars of weapons and armaments from the United States of America in the next ten years.
The core value of justice is why the effort of this church to build a home for homeless women, the Women in Transition project, is so important. That’s what Kirk spending all those hours wiring the place is important to us and to who we are. Because these are things that matter to God.
If we are going to understand ourselves as God’s people in this place, then we need to get straight about what is core – what is central to what we do. Maybe some of us think that gifts to Palestine and clean water for Malawi and fair trade coffee and olive oil and wiring a house for homeless women is just some nice “extra” stuff that some folks do when they have extra time, or extra money. Maybe some of us think that the high school mission trip is a nice “bonus” for the kids – that they go to work with poor people for a week as a kind of vacation from their parents. But it’s not a frill. Micah reminds us that this stuff is what is CENTRAL – CORE in our relationship to God. It’s not tangential and auxiliary. This stuff is doing justice. This is what taking our relationship with God seriously looks like. Being the church depends on living the core values that God requires.
Without that, the building’s a museum.
The fellowship is a not-very-exclusive club.
Worship – a meaningless ritual.
What does it mean to share in Jesus’ body and blood if we don’t share his life and his relationship to God? Jesus’ showed us how to do what God requires –
To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.
We come to this table to be strengthened to live
more faithfully the core values of Jesus’ life and our own.